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The Power of Words

May 3, 2011 1 comment

By Phil Hecken

On April 12, 2011, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers received a technical foul from referee Bennie Adams, in a game against the San Antonio Spurs. A visibly upset Bryant strode to the bench, punched a chair, and snapped a towel. Then, almost inexplicably, he stared out toward Adams, and in full view of TNT cameras (and boom mics), screamed, “Bennie!” His next two words were almost inaudible, but even those who have difficulty reading lips were able to see what followed: “F*CKING FA*GOT”

The retribution by the NBA was swift and severe. On April 13, NBA Commissioner David Stern handed Bryant a $100,000 fine, for “offensive and inexcusable” comments he made the previous evening.

“Kobe Bryant’s comment during last night’s game was offensive and inexcusable,” said Stern. “While I’m fully aware that basketball is an emotional game, such a distasteful term should never be tolerated. Accordingly, I have fined Kobe $100,000. Kobe and everyone associated with the NBA know that insensitive or derogatory comments are not acceptable and have no place in our game or society.” Message sent.

Bryant, for his part, was contrite. “My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period,” he said. “The words expressed do not reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone.” Message received?

Both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) were quick to issue statements backing up Stern’s fine.

Applauding Stern, HRC President Joe Solomonese said, “We hope such swift and decisive action will send a strong and universal message that this kind of hateful outburst is simply inexcusable no matter what the context.”

GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios joined in the praise for Stern, saying, “The NBA has sent a clear message to sports fans everywhere that anti-gay slurs have no place in the game.”

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Kobe Shh But was Bryant acting any different than many athletes act in the locker room, where no cameras or recorders are present? And was Bryant being singled out when other stars seemingly get a pass? Three years ago, Kevin Garnett apparently spoke the same words in a playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The only difference was that Garnett directed his comments to the crowd and not a referee.

I believe Bryant when he says his words aren’t reflective of any anti-gay sentiment he may harbor. I think, in the heat of the moment, he did express his emotions without any ill will or malice. But at the same time, I completely support the message the NBA sent with the hefty fine.

Growing up, on playgrounds across the United States, boys and men playing school yard and competitive games will frequently taunt an opponent by uttering similar slurs. It’s almost part of the “game.” But when the game is played on the national stage, no matter what the reason, professional athletes must rise above their macho posturing to achieve some sense of decorum. Allowing this degrading remark to go unpunished, however innocently it may have been uttered, would have been tacitly approving its utterance. The NBA not only needed to sanction Bryant, it had to.

NBA ballers, and all professional athletes, entertainers and those in the public eye must be held to a higher standard, realizing that their words have power. They need to be cognizant of the fact that many of them are role models (whether or not they wish to be), and their actions and words do carry a greater weight. Perhaps the NBA was *making an example* of Bryant, and this was a good thing if that was the intent. Message received? I hope so.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Kobe Bryant found out that a word (or two) is worth $100,000. That’s powerful stuff.